Social Media Strategy: Digital Trust – The Case of Facebook

What can social media strategists learn from Facebook? Lots. Especially when corporations are keen to approach the altar of authenticity. Like any sustainable relationship, corporations need to invest the time in getting into the minds of their target markets, and the dynamics of brand trust (and the evolution of “digital trust”). And as they have realized, this is not a straight and clear path.

Among online Canadians, Facebook is ubiquitous – 98% awareness, with three in five online Canadians having a Facebook profile. Facebook is the de facto identity card for the 18-34 generation. It is undoubtedly the leader among social media platforms in Canada. Some now consider the medium as a goldmine for marketers.

While Facebook is still in its youth, marketers need to understand three things: Who are Facebook users? What are they doing online? How do we connect with them?

Let us begin connecting the dots…

If we rewind to this time in May/June 2008, the dialogue among corporations was to shut down our workers using Facebook. Facebook was viewed as a time waster and the perception was that subscribers were busy chatting with their friends and playing games. This may be true to some extent, but in many regards they were playing around with an evolving technology.  Now, corporations are now talking about how to adapt social media tools to their business. How things have changed!

In Malcolm Gladwell‘s recent book Outliers, he discusses at great length the rule of 10,000 hours, but also buying into David Foot‘s central pieces on demographics contributing to certain individuals being born at the right time. If we look at the adopters of social media, using the 18-34 generation as a core demographic segment, this is Foot’s baby boom echo and this is their platform for communication. Connectivity is important to this generation, may it be via instant messaging, SMS or email. This group considers travel destinations based on their ability to stay in contact with their friends and post updates on their blog and pictures on Flickr and Picasa, to share the experience with their friends and colleagues. These are the kids of the boomers, so while different in age, they do connect with their boomer parents based on the values instilled by their parents.

So we have a dialogue platform and “connected” belief system. Let us now turn to the user. What do corporations need to grasp about Facebook subscribers? At almost 12 million online Canadians, Facebook is about as “real” a group of people that can be analyze virtually. It is an authenticated environment where the vast majority of people identify as the same people offline (i.e., the real world) – they have to use their real names. This is a critical point, especially when authenticity is a quality respected by all, and adopted as a credo in brands and corporate values.

A majority (62%) of members feel that their Facebook profile is an accurate representation of who they are. Further, there is a larger share of subscribers who appreciate that they can keep all their contact information on Facebook and maintain continuity if they change where they live, their telephone number or e-mail address (welcome to the age of your “portable identity” for life). Heavy users (about one-third of members) are a unique segment in this medium – they are more inclined to indicate that they maintain a broad network of friends and acquaintances, more willing to share emotions, more trusting of others, and more brazen and more flirtatious. Based on these “more” personality traits, we can surmise that these are outgoing people.

This leads to some very important findings for marketers. Heavy users of Facebook and other social media are seeking identity enhancement. Individuals now have the vehicles to express themselves online in ways and means they never had before. In the past where techies ruled the web with their knowledge of html coding, social media empowers the individual with simple tools and widgets as long as they have access to the web. The medium facilitates users to be as open as they wish, by letting in friends and colleagues on a permission basis.

This is a realization of what Tom Peters labelled as “personal branding.” Thus, heavier users of Facebook are doing more than just socializing – they are representing their “brand” in online space.

With social media, what individuals are doing a “micro” basis – i.e. personal brand management – is similar to what corporations are seeking via this medium. We are now seeing something akin to the personification of the corporation used as a marketing and engagement tool in online environment. In doing this, companies move beyond the basic tenants of brand management, to brand transparency and brand vigilance (i.e., “define yourself or somebody else will define you”). And some corporations get it.

Within Facebook, we have seen Pepsi launch its “Refresh Everything” campaign, as well as Molson having their own insiders group (Molson Canadian Nation), in ways that support their promotional campaigns. With the news feed in Facebook, friends and colleagues are well aware of what their friends are doing and through affiliation and information, this viral communication helps build the community. In the world of social media, aspects of conversation, collaboration, feedback and acknowledgment build and extend the role of traditional marketing.

Staying with the individual, a key dimension of social media is the notion of trust. If feedback is coming from a voice that is familiar, known and understood, it is more trusted. In Canada, ZINC Research/Dufferin Research have been tracking “societal trust” – where societal trust is measured in public opinion polls via an internationally recognized methodology with the core question being “generally speaking would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?” Looking at this within the context of social media, we see Facebook members being significantly more trusting of cousins and extended family, childhood friends from where they grew up, friends from school, college and university, as well as people from hobbies and/or sports, compared to those who are not on Facebook. This emphasizes that social media vehicles can serve as a means to communicate trust in products and services via the advocacy of the individual.

So within Facebook we find outgoing, connected and trusted individuals.

How about consumer activities connected to social media? Are Facebook subscribers more active than non-subscribers in their online activities? Our research shows that Facebook subscribers are significantly more likely to be doing their banking and managing their finances, visiting YouTube, using search engines to find news and entertainment information, going to Wikipedia, and playing games of chance such as poker, compared to NON-subscribers. From a marketer’s perspective, Facebook members are an attractive target for e-commerce, given their predisposition for “living their life online” relative to non-subscribers. Marketers should take note of this niche marketing opportunity – as expressed by Amy Shuen in “Web 2.0: A Strategy Guide,” “Google may know my key word searches, Amazon my wish list and Flickr may know the photos I tag as interesting or cute, but Facebook knows my face, the photos of my friends, my personally created profile, the evolution of my digital persona and my interactive social milieu.”

Social media from an advertiser’s perspective has become the World Series of niche marketing. Using our research into Facebook as a guide, there are nuances in whom to connect with, and how to establish a trusting reciprocal relationship between customers and companies. Marketers have the opportunity to extend traditional promotional activities via engaging social media tools. With the available vehicles, there are now creative means to connect with the under 35 year old demographic – and the reality of appealing to the “power users” of the space with understanding that trust is an extension of the personal brand. However, given the nature of the medium, companies have to reflect the authenticity of their products and services through every supported conduit in their campaign. And now such authenticity will be tested, as once a campaign is long over, the door will remain open to ongoing dialogue in new and unexpected ways. Companies need to consider the objectives of their business, marketing and communications plans and the guidance of strategic market research, and how they can be open to, and positively direct and support the evolving world of social media and using it as a means for building and reinforcing trust.

How will you and your company be building your “digital trust?”

  • Ann Middleman
    September 3, 2009

    Very good article. Interesting take on “trust” and “living online.”
    If you would be open to coming to New York to speak to the American Mktg Assn chapter there, let me know.

  • Colin Flint
    March 23, 2010

    A commonplace of modern branding is that the consumer owns the brand not the corporation. Now you say that for users Facebook is ‘representing their “brand” in online space’. Doesn’t that mean that by being open on Facebook you are losing control of your personal brand?

    • zincresearch
      April 13, 2010


      I think it is more about managing your personal brand. With all the controls, you can select who you want to communicate your “personal brand” to. Facebook is a vehicle for that. However, I think we are at an interesting point where we have more power than any point in history to be able to define our personal brand – from a niche to a broader market. I think the control depends on how broad we want to reach – the broader the coverage, the less control we will have.

      However, while the current commonplace thinking is that the consumer owns the brand… I think is is more complex than that. I think that some people are being dazzled with the newest shiny object. I believe that there is a continuum of B2C/B2B/C2B/C2C communication for any brand. Web 2.0 has made C2B/C2C more accessible and easier to realize. Corporations that grasp the new evolving dynamic, following a solid (and some cases traditional) strategy, would be able to better manage and understand the ownership of their brand.

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